Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Know How #2: Who Develops Our Artists?

In the second seminar hosted by Generator as part of ‘The Know How’ series the attention shifted away from the first event’s emphasis on platforms and getting noticed to a focus on answering the question ‘who develops our artists?’.  The underlying context for this session was to consider some of the difficulties facing the UK music industry in the current economic climate.  There is no doubt that the UK is rich in new musical talent, however, record labels no longer have the resources to develop talent as they did historically forcing the us to question who the primary representatives of artists these days.

The panel for this event represented a number of different intersecting interests.  The session was chaired by Jim Mawdsley, the CEO of Generator and the person responsible for organising the annual Evolution music festival in Gateshead and Newcastle.  The remaining guest panellists included the lead singer of the North-East band Maximo Park, Paul Smith as well as Cerne Canning of Supervision Management (the manager of Franz Ferdinand and The Vaccines) and Jim Chancellor who is the Managing Director of Fiction Records. Together they considered some of the changing roles played by artists, managers, labels, lawyers and publishers.

Artistic Development

The session opened with a discussion of what artist development means in the current climate.  Canning made the point that the industry is ‘changing very rapidly’ – the advent of digital downloading has transformed the industry and brought back an emphasis on the single.  Whereas the 1980s and 1990s were marked by an emphasis on albums as a means of artistic development and management, the current period is one wherein the demographic is driven by singles and this is making it hard to develop artists over the long term. There’s a sense of stasis amongst the labels. The threat of a format shift to streaming with an emphasis on revenue driven by subscription services has led to a situation in which nobody wants to invest in long term contracts for fear of a lack of sustainability.

This current climate is one permeated by uncertainty in the context of artistic development.  There is no end to the supply of talent and bands will always need varying degrees of development or guidance, but how that transpires depends partly on labels and partly on the artists themselves.  As labels are investing less in promotion there has to be a more going on around the band, often in the social space in order to generate interest.  Smith noted that Maximo Park were relatively fortunate with the support they received from their label, Warp, when they signed and started touring.  As a band they had no money but Warp were happy for the band to follow their artistic vision and paid for the initial ‘leg-ups’ llke the tour van and initial recording sessions, but this was mainly due to the success of their first self-released 7” single.  Other labels had wanted to get involved, and “some of the bigger record companies had wanted to manipulate” them into being something they didn’t want to be – Warp were happy for them to carry on being who they were.  According to Smith, artist development should come from the artists who should have the songs that form the basis of a great album otherwise it becomes a struggle when they find themselves in the spotlight.  The message here is that it’s crucial to have management and record companies who know what to do with the music and that it’s not wise to engage with the media process until artists are ready

Maximo Park clearly embraced a DiY approach to artistic development which can give artists a certain amount of freedom.  Chancellor concurred stating that the “wise labels” will let artists develop the way they need to.  In some regards A&R is a often thought of “as a bit of a dirty word” and that if an artist is savvy enough then there is often no need to tamper too much.  However, pop bands tend to require more A&R support than the indie bands.  Canning claims that the best artists are not subject to excessive A&R interference, citing the recent success of artists like Florence + the Machine, Adele and James Blake.  He also cited the example of Radiohead whose first album was subject to A&R guidance which enabled them to break through – the famous guitar riff in “Creep” came about due to Johnny Greenwood’s annoyance with the label’s guidance regarding their development.

Managers

Labels like artist to have an established manger these days as this minimises the risks they face when investing in artists.  Canning made the point that the experimentation of artists like Tom Whaite or John Cale in the 1980s, many of which who went on to sell very few records, would never happen today as labels are too afraid of letting artists loose in amazing studios with top producers.  Smith noted that a good manager is invaluable early on – you need to be able to trust them to tell you that the song you’ve written is good enough for everyone else:
“You end up investing a lot of trust in these people [managers] you’ve only just met… They’ve helped us do the right thing … I just write songs that I think are good and want somebody else to tell me whether they are the right ones to release as singles…
To me they all sound like singles except in an alternate reality where I’m the DJ selecting them on the radio.  A lot of my favourite records never made it to the top 10 so I’m not really the best judge of that”
When asked about the importance the role managers play in building visibility for artists Chancellor suggested that they can be “massive” or they can do  “nothing”.  Canning suggested that some managers drive the artist while sometimes it’s the artist that drives the situation, as in the case of Crystal Castles – they didn’t have a manger until well after they'd created a significant presence.  There appears to be a dearth of excellent managers currently as it’s so difficult to survive or make a living in the industry, to the point that many lawyers are starting to multitask and do the role traditionally associated with managers. Chancellor noted that one of the key skills a good manager needs is to be “in tune” with the band. He cited the example of the manager of the band, Brother, who is doing an excellent job at the tender age of 21.  He has “sniffed out” some good connections and worked his way around the business quickly.

Promotion

The discussion considered the various forms of effective promotion.  Playing live is a significant part of promoting emergent talent – trying to get onto the line-ups for some of the smaller festivals is possible but its much more difficult to break into the larger ones due to the established networks and relationships which determine these.  Mawdsley suggested that artists only need to invest in PR when they are ready to release a single.  However, many artists might find it more cost effective to do their own promotional work, as Smith did with Maximo Park’s first album (he wrote the press release).  Chancellor said that a lot of music bloggers are now filling the void left behind by the lack of label investment and they are doing the A&R work for artists.  The requirement for recording demo tapes has been replaced by uploading tracks to SoundCloud and distributing them that way.  Canning noted that labels are expecting bands to do their own marketing now and this has produced a culture of ubiquity in which a lot of the mystique of the artist has been ruined as a consequence of oversharing information.  Many bands don’t want to blog all day long, especially if it distracts them from being creative, but it can help establish a presence

Overall, the panel painted a rather pessimistic picture of the situation facing artists who want to break through into the wider public consciousness.  There were glimpses of hope in terms of what artists can do to take control of the situation but the overall take-home point is that emergent artists need to work hard and be prepared to work for nothing for a long time – it’s not feasible to expect to make it big overnight

You can find a rather poor quality audio recording of the seminar here:
The Know How: Who develops our artists by robjewitt

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Know How #1: Transmission

Radio, live transmission (Joy Division, 1979)

Yesterday saw the first in a series of public seminars ran by Generator, one of the leading music development agencies in the UK, entitled ‘The Know How’ in which a panel of industry experts discuss the latest developments within the industry.  The first panel, subtitled ‘Transmission’ was focussed on a consideration of the present and future role of music broadcasting, specifically as it applies to radio in its various forms (analogue, digital, online, etc) and how the platforms can be employed in such a way that emerging artists can get themselves noticed.

The panel comprised a high profile selection of guests from across the audio spectrum including Trevor Dann (former Head of BBC Music, writer and independent radio producer), Jeff Smith (Head of Programming at BBC Radio 2 and 6), Huw Stephens (DJ/Presenter BBC Radio 1) and Dave Haynes (Vice President of Business Development at SoundCloud).  While the first three panellists all have an obvious connection with radio, Haynes was quick to admit to feeling like somewhat of a charlatan amongst the others.  However, as many online music streaming services are opting for radio licences like We7 and Last.FM, it made sense to include the service that is increasingly being used by artists, producers and consumers alike to discover new music.  Indeed, this point was one of the first to be considered by the panel when Dann asked the audience how many of them used Radio 1 or 2 as their primary ways to discover new music (the answer: very few). When asked how many people used Radio 6 the audience response was slightly higher, but when asked how important the internet was for discovering new music the results were as expected – a unanimous sea of arms.

One of the key questions at the start of the debate involved a consideration of radio’s enduring importance as a means of connecting music lovers with new artists, something Radio 1 has been focussed on heavily in recent years ever since their ‘In New Music We Trust’ campaign began, and more recently with ‘Introducing’.  In some ways the BBC has played a large part in bringing new music to the attention of the public, especially across Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music.  There is much needed promotion of emerging talent across the public service broadcaster as commercial radio, according to Smith, is ‘not bothered on a whole by new music’ – their focus is driven by hits and familiarity, which audience and advertisers alike appreciate.  For Smith the BBC ‘like to lead taste’ not follow it.

In many ways presenters like Stephens act like taste makers or gate-keepers akin to John Peel, listening to all the music, both good and band, so the audience don’t have to.  Stephens’ popular Wednesday night slot on Radio 1 gives him free reign to play what he likes and enables listeners to discover something new.  He admitted to playing music that he personally doesn’t like, but that he knows the listeners might. There was an acknowledgment that services like Spotify offer music consumers to create their own bespoke playlists to share amongst friends, enabling people to come in contact with things they’ve never heard before – radio has to compete with these trends.  He regularly gets sent music from emergent artists via email, MySpace, SoundCloud, Twitter, etc like many consumers do, many of which he will play if they are interesting enough.  Stephens sees his show as a ‘filter’ for the masses of music we come in contact with now – it has to be a varied mix otherwise people would never find new stuff they didn’t know they like.

Much of what Stephens had to say chimed with what Haynes said about SoundCloud.  The aim of the service is to push audio to people and enable people to share music.  If presenters like Stephens represent a certain type of quality filter (ie new music good enough to reach a large audience), it was suggested by Dann that services like SoundCloud are devoid of quality control yet they must have detailed information about what is popular on the site.  It was put to Haynes that this must lead to a temptation to exploit that knowledge to provide a commercially driven product to the SoundCloud user base.  However, this idea was rejected by Haynes as not being in keeping with SoundCloud’s desire to enable artists to ‘reach their audience no matter how big or small’.  Other digital services might do this already, but SoundCloud doesn’t have a ‘big discovery push’ on their service and only occasionally promoting content – mainly from small acts or undiscovered artists.

The panel spent some time discussing the merits and pitfalls for emerging artists in trying to get themselves heard.  The option to hire a plugger to promote content to presenters like Stephens or those in control of playlists, like Smith, can either be very beneficial or beset with unscrupulous people looking to make some quick money from the uninitiated.  This is where tools like SoundCloud come into their own – Haynes suggested that the amount of free or cheap digital platforms online has enabled artists to build a presence like never before, and with this presence comes an audience.  It makes very little sense to try and charge people for digital singles if you haven’t built up a loyal or interested audience.

Ultimately, the message coming out of this seminar for emerging artists is that it pays to think and act smart when it comes to trying to break through and gain attentions.  There are many ways of building and maintaining interest in new music but being creative and determined to succeed are crucial – from shooting video diaries on YouTube to doing novel cover versions of familiar tunes.  Artists have to think strategically and network with as many people as possible to build a buzz around their content

Sunday, 22 May 2011

A busy week in tech for Gateshead-Newcastle coming up

The North-East (well Gateshead and Newcastle to be precise) has a number of interesting events lined up for those with an interest in music, media and technology, hosted by Generator and Thinking Digital.

Generator

Each evening from Monday to Thursday Generator are hosting a number of free (registration required) music industry themed events as part of their "The Know How" series at Northern Stage, opposite Newcastle University Student Union.  I'll be attending as many of these events as possible and hoping to post my take on the events after each one - the wifi signal is a little poor in this venue so Tweeting might not be an option!  You can find a brief overview of the events below:

Monday 23rd - 'Transmission'

This seminar will examine the past, present and future role of music broadcasting (TV, radio and new technologies), and identify existing and new opportunities for emerging artists to get noticed.

Points for discussion:
  • The role of traditional broadcasting (radio & TV)
  • New broadcast platforms and modern music consumption (podcasts, online and DAB radio, video-sharing websites, blogs and music streaming)
  • Associated revenue models
  • How do emerging artists and businesses embrace new technologies and broadcasting platforms?
  • The changing face of regional broadcasting and consequences for emerging artists
The guest panel includes:
Trevor Dann – Independent Radio Producer
Huw Stephens – BBC Radio 1
Dave Haynes – Soundcloud
Jeff Smith – Head of Programming, Radio 2

This should be an interesting discussion. I was impressed with Dave Haynes after his appearance at a Generator event last year: he's an intelligent guy with a lot of interesting ideas around online music distribution and the challenges facing the industry.

Tuesday 24th - 'Who Develops Our Artists?'

In the current economic climate traditional models of developing talent for the UK music industry are significantly fewer but there is no let up in the amount of quality artists coming through. Record labels no longer have the resource to adequately develop talent which begs the question: Who are the primary representatives of artists these days?

Points for discussion:
  • The impact of the diversification of label services on the artist
  • Is the role of the manager outdated?
  • The consequences of inadequate artist support
  • Should central government have a responsibility for talent development?
Jim Mawdsley – CEO, Generator, Director – Evolution
Paul Smith – Maximo Park
Matt Thornhill – A&R Director at XL Recordings
Cerne Canning – Supervision Management (Franz Ferdinand manager)
Jim Chancellor – Managing Director, Fiction Records

Wednesday 25th - 'What Does "Scene" Mean?'

Reviled and relied upon in equal measure – is ‘scene’ a convenient ‘catch-all’ journalistic term or something more substantial? Guests will look at how dance and electronic music scenes develop and achieve longevity – it will examine how emergent scenes rise and what they owe (by influence or outlook) to the original operators.

Panel guests will offer their views on:

  • Myth or not? What makes a scene?
  • The impact of new influences or new entrants
  • Can it generate creative complacency?


Bill Brewster has a particular connection with Newcastle given his early connections with Forensic Records and Shindig moving on to a significant career in promoting, DJing, and journalism, where in his book ‘Last night a DJ Saved my Life’ he described Ralph Lawson as ‘Britain’s best kept secret’.

Bill Brewster – Lowlife, ‘Last Night a DJ Saved my Life’
Ralph Lawson – Back 2 Basics, 2020 Soundsystem
Luke Una – Unabombers, Electric Chair, Electric Elephant

I'm looking forward to hear from Bill Brewster as someone who has fond memories of his book 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' (available for a very low price on Amazon at the time I write this), amongst others. It's an enjoyable trip down memory lane, outlining some of the key events in the emergence of dance music in the UK.

Thursday 26th - 'The Beggars Group Story'

Generator is extremely pleased to have Martin Mills MBE, sole owner and Chairman of the Beggars Group take part in our ‘In conversation’ sessions with BPI Chairman, Tony Wadsworth.

Artists that Martin Mills has worked with over the years include White Stripes, Pixies, Interpol, Cat Power, Basement Jaxx, The Prodigy, Adele, Radiohead, Gary Numan, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, and TV On The Radio.

Mills has been actively involved in promoting the interests of the independent music sector, being instrumental in the setting up of the Association of Independent Music in 1999, IMPALA in 2000, and most recently the Worldwide Independent Network.

Tony Wadsworth, Chair of BPI, and former CEO at EMI will be asking the questions and offering his own views.

I'l be intrigued to hear from Wadsworth, perhaps more so than Mills, given the former's role at the BPI. Despite some of the conflicted messages that come out of the British body, Wadsworth has come across a bit of a pragmatist in the face of the challenges facing music distribution in the UK.

Thinking Digital 2011

This Wednesday and Thursday sees the return of the North East's premiere technology conference to the Sage Gateshead.  Last year's event was a wonderful showcase of ideas from the worlds of science, technology, digital media and much more and I was fortunate to attend.  Take a look at the video below to get a feel for that event:

Thinking Digital 2010 in 4 Minutes from Herb Kim on Vimeo.

This year my wife is going (courtesy of company sponsorship from Accenture) but my work load prevents me from attending.  The speakers look great (Gerd Leonhard and Conrad Wolfram are good value for money), as expected, and the event has sold out already so if you want get involved you can still sign up for the event webcast at the bargain price of £79+VAT.

No doubt the hastag #tdc11 will be trending on Wednesday and Thursday!

Click this link to get involved.

Now, if only I could get all this university marking out the way...

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Unexplained PSN credit card charges

When the PSN was hacked I was a little nonchalant about the whole thing, mainly because I was out the country for 2 weeks so didn't feel the impact of missing the service, and also because my bank accounts and credit card had been cancelled due to unrelated suspicious activity.  Ha!  On top of this, it was announced by Sony that the card details were supposedly protected/encrypted.

So, when there were online rumours of cards being sold on the darknets I chalked most of this up to fear, uncertainty and doubt.  I never spent much time going through my credit card charges either.  Until today.  I have one card setup for PSN purchases which gets used for nothing else, so it's pretty easy to see any unusual behaviour.  For the last couple of months, the balance has not decreased much despite over-payments so I looked at the digital receipts sent to my email account.  That was when I discovered the charges.

The charges
Thank you for your purchase with PlayStation(R)Network.
You will find a copy of your purchase details below and a link to the terms which apply to your purchase. Please print these off and keep in a safe place for future reference.
Online ID: robbo1337
Name: rob jewitt
Order Number: 218X2019X0
Date Purchased: 03/04/2011 @ 06:21 PM
Total Amount: £9.99
Item / Service Details Unit of Price
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
IP9100-NPIA09003_00-CC000000WITHFREE-EPGB Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity™ (Premium 30-day Subscription £9.99) £9.99
(Next Renewal Date: 03/05/2011 @ 06:10 PM)
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
Total Amount: £9.99
Current Wallet Amount: £0.00
This receipt clearly shows a charge of £9.99 for Sony's Qriocity music streaming service (think Spotify for Sony products).  I checked back another month and found an email dated 4/3/2011 much the same as the one above - another charge for the Qriocity service.  And it's there again on the 1/2/2011. 

Now, I've never knowingly signed up for a recurrent music streaming service.  I did install the Qriocity application when it first launched on the 2/1/2011 - I have an email saying as much.  However, I must not have noticed the terms and conditions which stipulated that they'd charge you and keep on charging you for the service.  A service I have never used past the first day.  A service that costs double that of its rivals' basic services (eg Spotfiy, Napster, We7, etc) or equal to their premium services without any of the benefit of being able to synch tracks to my iPhone or keep some audio files for good.  I'll be making use of these cancellation instructions at the earliest possible opportunity.

It turns out that it wasn't hackers who ripped me off.  No.  

It was Sony.

PSN is back up. Kinda...

In case you were sleeping (European readers!), Sony announced that they are bringing the Playstation Network back on line across a number of regions today.  This isn't expected to be the full network up and running but it is expected to be the multiplayer functionality.  If you want to check out the full blog posts then you can: click here and here.  You can also watch a video from Kazuo Hirai below explaining the situation.


You can prepare for the switch on by going over to the PS3 site and downloading the new 3.61 firmware to your computer and transferring it over to your PS3 via USB.  In my experience this process tends to be a lot faster than downloading it direct to your PS3.  Get it here.  Once you have it you need to  ensure you have a USB drive with around 200 mb of spare space that is formatted as FAT32.  Create a folder called PS3 then a subfolder called UPDATE and put the newly downloaded file in there, eg:

USB/PS3/UPDATE/PS3UPDAT.PUP

Head on over to the System Update option on the Settings field (va the XMB) and update the system via the USB storage device.  This should take about 45 seconds.  And that's it.  You can try signing in to PSN network to change your password but, currently, it appears to be still undergoing maintenance in the UK as I type.  There are instructions for how to change your PSN network password here.

The Playstation Network is undergoing maintenance

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Facebook is not conducive to effective studying, is it?

One of my students posted this infographic on, wait for it, my module's Facebook page.  The conclusion it comes to is, well, inconclusive but there are strong hints that, in its current guise, social media is more of a distraction than it is an effective learning tool.  It also suggets that some platforms are better than others for engagement in the classroom (Twitter vs Facebook). What do you think?

Is Social Media Ruining Students?
Via: OnlineEducation.net

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Spotify questions

One of my students has just asked me for some info about Spotify as part of their journalism final year project.  Whenever I do this kind of thing I like to post my answers here in case it helps any other student.  The questions are outlined below and have already been answered by Paul Carr (TechCrunch) and Kieron Donoghue (ShareMyPlaylists.com)

Q: How important is Spotify to the way we consume music both now and in the coming years, does it have a longterm future and is its business model sustainable?

A: I think Spotify is quite important to the way many Brits (and some Europeans!) currently consume music in that it's been a highly visible alternative to illegal filesharing.  Its simple to use interface and clear legality is an obvious boon to the industry in its attempt to get people to pay for music, whether that's by subscribing to one of the pricing plans, following a purchase link to their partner's service (7digital) or by paying for listener's attention via the ads.  The fact they've managed to convert around 15% of their user base (1 million people) to paying for content is remarkable in and of itself when there is some much competition for attention (both legal and illegal).

Does it have a longterm future?  I think its recent announcement that it will be limiting the amount of free streaming available to listeners (down from 20 hours per month to 10) was taken by many of the freeloaders to signal the end of their relationship with the service.  However, I think it was a necessary step in their evolution - one of the common features of new start-ups is that they need to attract a critical mass of users quickly and scale up fast.  Typically this involves making short term financial losses in order to cement a market position from which to grow - in this case giving users lots of content at little cost.  They had to make the proposition to pay more valuable if they were to grow and penetrate the US market.  There were rumours flying round that they made this change in order to appease the US labels before entering the marketplace, for fear their existing provision would cannibalise the other legitimate music services that are already fairly established there (eg Rhapsody, MOG, Pandora, etc).

Their most recent announcement regarding the purchase of music bundles and the ability to synch songs to iPods and Android phones also make it a more viable threat to Apple's iTunes, especially when buying 100 MP3s for £50 - undercutting their rival significantly.  However, it remains to be seen if this will be crucial to their long term growth as iTunes will still be needed for synching videos, photos or calendars.  It does point to the seriousness of their intent.  Many people loath iTunes because it has
become too bloated in size; Spotify is an attractive alternative to managing a music collection.  It has had to adapt in order to ensure its business model can survive - there's very little profit margin in online music services due to the licensing costs involved, so services have to be versatile.

Q: Will music streaming services like this replace downloads  legal or otherwise  and hard copies of music as the most popular medium?

A: There is some indication that the industry would like to see music streaming services take the place of (illegal) downloads, but its a nuanced issue.  The industry would like to be able to compete with free services in a manner by which they are able to make a profit.  Streaming services are potentially lucrative to the recording industry, if not so much for the recording artists.  Rights deals are still lopsided in the distribution of royalties in this regard.

Also, it makes a lot of sense to keep people paying for access to content rather than paying for something they can own forever, or at least as long as the format is viable (remember Mini-Disc?!). This is often referred to as the 'celestial jukebox' - an infinite music supply in the cloud where you pay for perpetual access without having to buy the infrastructure or manage the content (this has certainly been the tone coming out of some of the industry events I've attended in the past 12 months - see http://www.themusicvoid.com/author/rob-jewitt/).

However, there is still a lot of money to be made by having consumers pay for access (Spotify) AND paying for ownership (iTunes).  Having a mixed-market proposition has significant advantages, and this is what Spotify is currently moving towards.  As for whether or not streaming services will replace ownership of files - it's difficult to judge.  There are many music fans out there who have taken advantage of digital distribution during a period in which the industry lacked a clear direction, and have amassed huge music collections stored on inexpensive hard drives.  It's unlikely that these people will shift completely to streaming services like Spotify as there are still gaps in the collection on offer due to licensing restrictions.  Of course, one of the ways around this  is that Spotify allows you to replace import your collection into their player.  As for newcomers to digital music, it might be that they will be more likely to forgo amassing large collections of digital files in favour of streaming services, but people still like to be able to do things to their music (eg. edit tracks, make ringtones, mash-ups, use them on personal projects, etc) so streaming seems likely to be just one aspect of a more varied music diet.

Q: What do you see as its major strengths, and what are its shortcomings, if any?

A: The strength of Spotify is in its ease of use and cross platform functionality (ie the Spotify Mobile service for smartphones is well executed).  Many people aren't so bothered about trying to manage 250+ GB of music data on their computer hard-drives.

The weaknesses of Spotify are tied to the limits it places on user control of the content.  When it was primarily a streaming service there was very little you could do with it other than play tracks on demand or make/share playlists.  They've altered this proposition now somewhat with the purchasing of bundles etc.  However, there are still gaps in their library (eg no albums by house musician Gui Boratto) and this is a problem echoed across other similar services, so it's by no means a unique problem.  This comes down more to licensing deals with the majors and indies.  There's also been some vocal criticism by musicians and smaller labels about the fairness and parity of the royalties offered by such services.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Note to self #471

When jailbreaking your iPhone be sure to remember where to find the firmware:

~(home)/Library/iTunes/iPhone Software Updates

The amount of times I forget this...